Don Cline looks like he should be for sale alongside his antiquated wares. On this hot Saturday afternoon, Cline, a slight, bronzed man with wild grayish-gold hair coming out of every hair follicle above his neck, is wearing partially tattered red suspenders to hold up stained denim jeans. His outfit and hair, like the antiques that litter his farm, appear to have gone untouched for several decades.
If you happened to stumble upon Cline's Country Antiques on Highway 49 in Mount Pleasant by mistake, you would think you had found a landfill. Upon a cursory glance at the junk-filled yard, brownish-red rust gleams in the sun. Things of little value, like a wooden prosthetic leg with a leather strap (for attachment purposes) and an old rusty bedpan, are strewn about the lawn.
But upon a closer look, the madness has a method. Old signs lean against sheds in bunches. Human-sized chickens made out of brightly colored oil drums that Cline gets from Mexico line the path to his office. Behind the vintage gas pumps is a table filled with dozens of porcelain hands. Cline's hand supplier scouts out failing glove companies for first dibs on the surprisingly popular product. A nearby shed contains Coke bottles that were filled as far back as the FDR administration, and a few paces from that sits a heap of old license plates, issued when Wilson was in office.
When I first meet Cline in his office, a converted barn, he's reclining in an ancient teal blue chair -- the kind with a skinny metal shaft near the top that connects to a small rectangular pad barely wide enough to support the back of someone's head.
I incorrectly guess that it's a dentist chair. Cline tells me it's a barber chair valued between $150 to $300. He has some dentist's chairs on the premises, but they typically go for less because of the negative images people associate with them. I get my first antique lesson right off the bat. "The way you can tell the difference is that with barber chairs the arms are fixed but dentist chairs have arms that drop so they can work on you a little closer."
Before there was junk at Clines, there were chickens -- 12,000 of them to be precise. Cline's father quit chicken farming in 1973, the same year Cline began collecting junk. (Hay is still produced on the farm, and until five years ago, livestock.)
Originally, Cline began to buy truckloads of junk at estate auctions thinking the stuff would be useful one day. "Back in the '70s, it was dirt cheap. You could fill up a truck for $50 to $100." Two years later, he had accumulated so much that his wife made him hang a sign on Highway 49 in front of his driveway advertising for a weekly sale on Sunday afternoons. (30 years later, he hasn't done much more advertising. He doesn't have a Web site. On my first attempt to visit Cline's on a Sunday, I found out the hard way he's only open Thursday through Saturday). In 1980, Cline quit his job teaching business at a college to deal full-time.
Cline's farm is always over capacity, and he's had to bring in 11 trailers to hold what can't fit on his 15,000-acre farm. Currently, he's in the process of spring-cleaning, and in the junk business, that means incineration. A fire burned some rotted wooden items in the back of his property when I was there. Iron is shipped to a place in Albemarle where it's reduced to scrap metal.
Where does the junk come from? Auctions here and there. Cline frequently buys out estates from people post-mortem. Other dealers seek Cline out when they are ready to quit the business.
"A lot comes up the driveway. Too much, my wife says," Cline says of the junk brought in by door knockers or pickers as he calls them. The pickers hit up yard sales and Saturday night junk sales searching for items they know Cline will buy. As far as finding a discarded gem in a trash pile, that never happens he says.
Eighty percent of his business comes from other businesses -- smaller antique dealers or other companies like movie studios looking for décor or props. Cracker Barrel is a regular Cline's customer, and at one time, most of the Applebees in the country had a Cline sign hanging on their walls.
Once every few minutes as we talk junk, a customer interrupts us to get a price quote. One man wearing a modern polo looks like he's in a different time period than Cline. He asks about a toy train.
"Yeah, OK, in the front left when you go into [barn] number four." Cline says, placing the item among thousands in his head. He is trying to remember whom he bought it from and how much he spent. Then he'll mark it up slightly. He says he can use this rudimentary system thanks to a photographic memory. "The story on it ... it's 500 bucks. The action on it is that it slides back and forth on the track. It needs a motor. It was German. I didn't realize it was of German origin when I bought it. It started sliding and smoking when I plugged it in. In Germany, everything in the country is [a wattage of] 220. Here, it's 110. So it would have to have a motor I'm sure. Now there are some other coin-ops. There's one with two horses on it in operating shape. Three hundred [dollars] on it."
Cline tells me one of the secrets to the biz; age doesn't matter much, just demand and desirability. One of the most unusual items he's ever had was a 16th century French Sedan chair, the type royalty was carried around in. After holding it for awhile, he finally got rid of it for $1,000. Later, he saw a similar chair go for $25,000.
Cline says the day he quits will be the day they sell his stuff at an estate auction. "I promised my wife I would retire one day at a time. I'm 66 and down to three days a week now. I told her I'd cut back to two days when I'm 75, and one day when I'm 85 -- if I'm still above ground."